Debussy: La Mer (CD review)

Also, La Boite a joujoux; Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune; Three Preludes. Sir Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI 7243 5 58045-2.

You'd think by the number of recordings Sir Simon Rattle makes for EMI that he was the only artist they had under contract. I exaggerate, but if you had to have only one conductor right now, you could do worse than Rattle. In the present disc, the maestro and his imposing Berlin Philharmonic give us an album of Debussy music--a couple of warhorses and a couple of less well-known items.

The warhorses are La Mer and Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune. Practically every conductor on the planet has recorded them at one time or another, so there's plenty of competition. In both works, Rattle opts for a light, radiant, dreamy, ethereal, almost surreal impressionist effect, with the EMI audio engineers contributing with a relatively soft, slightly distant, although extremely dynamic live sound. This delicate, airy approach is at the expense of as much excitement as some of Rattle's rivals conjure up in the music, yet it works reasonably well in the Prelude, though leaving La Mer somewhat wanting for passion. A quick comparison of Rattle's La Mer to those of Jean Martinon (EMI), Leopold Stokowski (Decca), Andre Previn (EMI), Bernard Haitink (Philips), Herbert von Karajan (DG), Fritz Reiner (RCA), and Geoffrey Simon (Cala) reveals greater degrees of color and animation from those gentlemen, plus more vibrant recordings. Not that there is anything wrong with Rattle's performances or the recording, incidentally; they are quite beautiful in their way, just not as lively or as vivid as some others.

The highlight of the Rattle disc, however, is La Boite a joujoux, a series of tone poems based on children's stories that Debussy left unfinished at his death in 1918 and completed by a friend, Andre Caplet. They are delightful, Rattle's interpretations of them are charming, and the recording at this point seems a tad more forward and animated. The disc concludes with three of Debussy's piano Preludes orchestrated by Colin Matthews, which are also quite appealing.

So, it's hard to fault Rattle on any specific count. He interprets the works as voluptuously as any Debussy fan could want, and he builds suitably atmospheric, emotional moods in each piece. It's just that it's equally hard to pick absolute winners in music so well covered by current recordings.

One final note: Because of the wide dynamic range on the disc, listeners may find themselves tempted to increase the gain, like during the opening moments of Prelude a l'apree-midi d'un faune, a decision the listener may soon regret, as the volume will quickly overpower the music. Although a wide dynamic range is perhaps an unfortunate by-product of getting too much high fidelity in today's compact discs, it's a concern with which one can easily live.

JJP

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa